By Anna Mindess
Last week brought to a close the 15-week Edible Education class at UC Berkeley taught by Michael Pollan and a slate of luminaries in the food and food justice world. This year’s course, again sponsored by the Edible Schoolyard Project, carried the subtitle: “Telling Stories about Food and Agriculture.” As a community member who took advantage of the free seats for at least half the lectures (all are available for viewing on YouTube), I found the storytelling focus to be the most powerful ingredient in the mix.
Pollan opened the first evening saying, “This is a course about how we grow and eat food in America…and storytelling. Stories organize our experience and the stories we tell ourselves as a culture about food are in the process of changing dramatically.”
So, besides the farmers, ranchers and famous chefs who informed and often charmed the audience, several unconventional, yet dynamic storytellers invigorated the 400 students and 300 community members who attended the weekly lectures.
In the second class, Peter Sellars, the brilliant and quirky theater director, passionately advised students to “live a life of integrity and bring something into this world that doesn’t exist.” He then shared stories from India, where Hindu tradition says, “life is sustained by feeding others, so that eating alone is eating sin.” He told the group that the Coca-Cola Company is buying up all the mountain rivers in the world. In parts of India, this draining of public water has dried up many wells and polluted the groundwater. Farming communities are being turned into deserts and thousands of Indian farmers who have lost their livelihoods have committed suicide. In Kerala, India, people have been protesting the actions of Coca-Cola for years with sit-ins, where “old ladies chant: ‘when you drink Coca-Cola you drink the blood of the people.’”
On another night, The Kitchen Sisters, Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva, shared a different tenor of stories from their award-winning NPR series “Hidden Kitchens.” They played excerpts from several radio pieces: in one, homeless people share their appreciation of being able to cook with George Foreman grills almost anywhere. In another, called “Weenie Royale,” we hear from second-generation Japanese people who were interned during WWII, and learn how some of the army-surplus foods fed to them in the camps, such as hot dogs, spam and baloney, became incorporated into the diet of the third generation.
In “Bread Basket Blues,” Kettleman City in the California’s Central Valley is called “the new Appalachia.” The children who live in this rural community, surrounded by farms that grow the finest fruits and vegetables in world, never get to taste them. The closest grocery store is 35 miles away and many residents rely on the proliferation of fast food restaurants, leading to an epidemic of obesity and diabetes.
Saru Jayaraman, a lawyer and community activist, who wrote “Behind the Kitchen Door,” which will be out in February, galvanized the crowd on another Tuesday. Below is a startling video she showed about the low pay of restaurant workers (frozen at $2.13/hour in all but seven states, thanks to Herman Cain – yes that Herman Cain.)
While 20 million people work in restaurants, the two lowest paid professions are fast food prep and dishwasher. Servers cannot make a living wage and ironically often depend on food stamps and without paid sick days they come to work when ill and spread their germs.
Jayaraman said workers need a consumer-driven movement, much like the one that led to more organic produce and humanely raised meat, because we demanded that from restaurants. Workers deserve no less. Tips are not the answer; workers should be paid a decent wage and provided with sick days. She encouraged us to ask the restaurants we frequent how they treat their workers. And don’t leave tips on your credit card, they may never reach your server. (In the video of the lecture, Jayaraman’s part starts at mark 34:19.)
UC Berkeley is taking steps to address at least some of these issues. Last week it announced it would be open a new Food Labor Research Center, whose goal is to raise public awareness about the wages and working conditions of the food and restaurant industry’s 20 million workers in the United States. Jayaraman will be the center’s director.
Finally, architect, artist and environmental activist, Fritz Haeg, author of Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn told us how the American front lawn symbolizes everything wrong with our lifestyle and food system. So he’s been ripping out front lawns and installing vegetable gardens in cities all over the world, as well as doing other art installations. He left us with a quote from John Cage: “Art is a sort of experimental station in which one tries out living.” (Haeg’s part of the UC Berkeley lecture starts at 50:00 mark.)
He showed us an example of his work on a clip from World News Tonight, in which residents express shock that edible gardens might replace lawns in their neighbors’ front yards:
With the focus on storytelling, the lecture series orchestrated by Pollan harnessed its power to engage students, not just with statistics and scientific information, but with creative and emotionally charged narratives that should motivate them to take an active role in shaping the future of our food system.
Anna Mindess is a freelance writer and sign language interpreter who lives in Berkeley. She is a regular contributor to “Oakland Magazine” and KQED’s Bay Area Bites. Follow her food adventures on her blog East Bay Ethnic Eats or on Twitter@EBEthnicEats.
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